“Confidence” Men:  on Pickup and Unfalsifiability
            -- for A.M., who recently lost her father --


Remember that the world's most desirable women
are defined by their fierce opposition to bullshit.

Though dominated by people who have obvious psychological problems (as many movements are), the PUA movement was nonetheless fascinating to people who are interested in biology, sociology, and human sexuality, as I am.  When someone makes the claim “Do XYZ, and you will become more attractive to the opposite sex,” it’s human nature to wonder whether the claim is true.  But many a movement that started off as interesting has become stupid, and this happens to most of them in the same way: an increasing reliance upon, and obsession with, assertions that are unfalsifiable.

In order for your beliefs to be worth having, there need to be circumstances under which you would stop believing them: your belief that penguins can’t fly would be altered if you saw a penguin flying; your belief that Mozart is a genius would be altered if it were found that he plagiarized his work; your belief that your wife is faithful would be altered if you saw a videotape of her fucking the mailman; etc. 

This property in a belief—i.e., the possibility of the existence of contrary evidence—is called falsifiability.  Though it sounds like a weakness, it is actually a strength.  It means that the belief in question is rooted in something sound and comprehensible.  Remember, we are not talking about the likelihood that your belief is wrong (I don’t expect my belief in gravity to be shaken by a randomly floating object anytime soon), but rather about the logical possibility of imagining circumstances that would contradict it (I can comprehend how a randomly floating object would contradict the theory of gravity, if one were to pass by). 

At first, the pickup movement mainly made claims that worked this way.  Regardless of how big a clown you think that Mystery guy is, he at least mostly made assertions that were falsifiable, in that he would advise you to walk up to a girl and say or do a series of fairly specific things: women love talking about astrology; a woman will like you if you pretend to be interested in her friend; a woman is more likely to give you her number if you pretend you have to leave soon; etc.  These are all falsifiable claims.  If the series of very specific things works, then Mystery is right, and if not, he is wrong.

Whether it is ethical to use any particular piece of advice is another matter, since this essay is primarily concerned with falsifiability.  But it seems to me that in principle, there’s nothing altogether terrible about this.  Most guys are nervous walking up and talking to a woman, so if you can tell guys two or three things that will make them less nervous about doing that, fine.  The things you tell them may be silly, but hey, most things are silly.  It’s a silly world.  When pickup gets truly dangerous is when it gets unfalsifiable.  Because that is—to define the term broadly—the point at which a movement becomes a religion. 

We are all familiar with how falsifiability and unfalsifiability work in debates between religious people and nonbelievers.  The nonbeliever can describe circumstances under which he would change his mind—e.g., “if I said, ‘God, prove your existence by making that tree over there burst into flames right this second,’ and then the tree burst into flames, I would change my mind and believe in God”—but in almost all cases, the believer cannot.  For most believers, there is in principle nothing that would make them change their minds and stop believing.  And this is not simply an outgrowth of the logical dictum that you can’t prove the absence of something—it’s because, in most religions, faith itself is tied to morality at least as much as is adherence to the specific moral behaviors the religion promotes.  They don’t just say that believing the mumbo-jumbo will cause you to behave morally; they say that believing the mumbo-jumbo is in and of itself a moral act.

And it’s not difficult to see how things got this way.  Movements succeed by making their weaknesses look like strengths, and since having no evidence is a pretty glaring weakness, religions play Opposite Day by putting that part right up front, in the form of a premium on faith: sure, there’s no evidence for any of this stuff, but remember, you are only a good person insofar as you believe it anyway. 

The differences between this Standard Operating Procedure for virtually all religions and the extreme fringes of the pickup movement are not terribly complex: you simply replace “good person” with “alpha,” and there you are.

Many pickup sites have become just as closely guarded about offering specifics of “alpha proof” as religions have become about offering “proof” of the existence of God.  Religions have learned from a long track record of losing arguments that whenever they claim something “proves” the involvement of a deity, it’s only a matter of time until science proves it actually doesn’t.  Much like a lazy parent’s attitude towards obedience, religious officials want you to believe there’s a God because they say so, and for no other reason.  Even asking for another reason means you’re “bad.” 

Similarly, the pickup extremists wish to hold their judgments up as the only acceptable rulings on who is or is not an “alpha male.”  Accordingly, they ground those judgments in abstractions and self-fulfilling prophecy: you are an “alpha” if, and only if, you behave this way and think of women that way, because we say so.  If they based their alpha rulings on external criteria, they might end up being proven wrong.

The number of women a man has slept with, or the frequency with which he sleeps with them, would seem to be a no-brainer as far as alpha criteria go, but you’ll note the conspicuous absence of hard numbers to this effect in the pickup world.  If they actually came right out and said “You are an alpha if you have slept with X number of women,” they would be leaving open the possibility for men to come forward who have slept with that number of women without following any of their advice, acting in any of the ways they say to act, or believing any of the things they say to believe. 

Naturally, if they did put a number on it, and a man who wasn't in their camp came forward to object that he'd slept with that many women without following any of their advice, PUAs would be armed and ready with a litany of reasons why his numbers “don’t count”—the girls were all sluts, not high-value, too old, into nerds because of meds they’re on, probably cheating on him, etc.  What kind of girls do “count?”  The kind of girls who sleep with men who act the way these guys say to act, of course.  (Textbook circular reasoning, right up there with "God exists because the Bible says so, and the Bible is right because God exists.")

There’s a kernel of truth to most blather about “alpha males,” just as there’s a kernel of truth to most religions.  I’m certainly not going to claim it’s false that women fantasize about being romanced by kings, cowboys, and Batman.  But human emotion is more complicated than that, and all aggressively reductive movements are scared of complexity.  One good reason to stay away from philosophies like this is that most beautiful things are complex, and so you lose the ability to perceive beauty by denying them. 

Or even by thinking about them too much, unfortunately.  I can hardly enjoy the scene in Empire Strikes Back where Leia says “I love you” and Han says “I know” anymore without picturing a bunch of baboons hooting about how “alpha” it is.  Hey, experts?  Everybody already knew Han Fucking Solo was cool before you told us.  You have added little, and subtracted much.

You may think you have helped out by delineating exactly how to act like Han Solo, but you haven’t.  You’ve only delineated how to act like who people think Han Solo is five minutes after they first meet him.  But who Han Solo really is, is the guy who comes back to help the Rebels instead of leaving with the reward, just because it’s the right thing to do—a move that you would have characterized as supremely “beta,” had you been there.  It did take confidence, but the real kind, instead of the stupid kind you made up.  If Han Solo had read your blogs, he would have left with the reward and spent it all on stupid hats. 

Once again, I’m not against the “seduction community” as a general rule.  On the face of it, I see nothing wrong with giving people—male or female, gay or straight—advice about how to be more attractive to whomever they’re trying to sleep with, and there are any number of sites that do this in a more-or-less “totally fine” way.

In fact, I think the presence or absence of actual advice giving to be a pretty decent rule of thumb for discerning how full of crap any particular one of these sites or programs is.  You’ll notice that the more extreme and psychologically questionable a site is, the less hard advice there is to be found on it.  If posts consisting of rants about “sluts” and mockery about how stupid women are vastly outnumber posts that specifically tell you “Do XYZ and this will happen, do ABC and that will happen” in a falsifiable fashion (without relying on self-fulfilling qualifiers about how there’s something wrong with the women it doesn’t work on), then the site you’re looking at is a questionable one.  And the more unbalanced that ratio becomes in favor of the former, the closer the pickup movement gets to becoming a religion. 

Of course, even specific advice-giving can be bullshit too, if it’s presented with some kind of “escape clause” for when the advice giver turns out to be wrong.  And a lot of pickup is founded on rhetoric like this: they’ll tell you exactly what to do, but if it doesn’t work, that just means you did it wrong.  (Pray and God will heal you, but if He doesn’t, then it was because you didn’t truly believe He would.)

In pickup, “doing it wrong” usually means doing it without enough “confidence”—a word that used to mean believing in yourself, but now means acting however pickup gurus decree you should act.  Unsurprisingly, the term has gotten defined within pickup a lot like how “faith” gets defined within organized religion—it doesn’t just mean believing in God; it means believing in God our way. 

As with many religious people, there is some considerable reason to feel sorry for these guys.  For one thing, they are in the unenviable position of wanting women to be good at sex but simultaneously feeling like they have to disapprove of the ones who are.  To quote one prominent guru, from a post about how to identify sluts: “Hey man, nothing like getting a BJ from a chick who knows how to hit the underside with her tongue, but it does make you wonder how much dick it required for her to reach that level of professionalism.  Now, I’m not one who likes to toss around knee-jerk accusations of misogyny, but honestly, if you are finding reasons to be mad at a woman who is in the process of blowing you, then you might not be in the most psychologically healthy place.  (Or the most logical place, as it’s far more likely that the woman in the example got that skilled by practicing on long-term boyfriends with whom she was comfortable communicating than a series of one-night stands.)

But it’s lucky for me, I suppose, that these guys have this particular hangup.  A lot of women might be inclined to lump me in with them, since I criticize many tenets of organized feminism, champion porn, and so forth, but the source of schism between the 1585 crowd and pickup extremists is a pretty obvious and major one: I do not care how much sex a woman has had.  To the extent that I do, it’s because I think women who haven’t had enough of it are boring. 

I have never seen why this isn’t obvious to more guys: if you want women to have sex, stop saying there’s something wrong with women who have sex.  The societies where the most good sex goes on are the ones with the least slut-shaming (those are also the thinnest and least-violent societies, but I’m not about to suggest a causal relationship there in the middle of an essay extolling falsifiability).

But that’s the problem.  Pickup extremists don’t just want women to have sex—they want women to have sex with them and only them.  This is, I suppose, excusable if the woman you’re talking about is your wife, but it seems presumptuous when adopted with regard to half the planet in general. 

The PUA response to this—as I’ve heard many times—is that I don’t care whether women have a lot of sex because I’m a “beta,” and betas know the only way they can get laid is for women to have sex with everybody, whereas alphas know that even if women hardly ever have sex, they will be unaffected, because all that sex will be with alphas.  This is a logically coherent argument.  But then, so is the argument that the world will end when the seventh seal is broken and trade is restricted to those bearing the mark of the Beast.  And both are completely unfalsifiable.

I might respond with the argument that only deeply sexually insecure men are threatened by women who have had a lot of sex.  I can’t prove this either of course, but it would, at least, carry the weight of being corroborated by roughly 100% of women, based on their actual experiences.  But this highly persuasive anecdotal evidence would be countered by pickup’s ex cathedra dictum that all women are lying about everything, all of the time.  Pickup makes assertions about women, but all contrary evidence based on actual women is suspect—just like religion makes assertions about the external world, but all contrary evidence based on the actual external world is suspect.  (Sure there are dinosaur bones, but they were obviously created by the Devil.) 

When a movement gets to the point where it’s telling you that you can’t trust anyone except the guy who’s telling you that you can’t trust anyone, it’s probably time to thank them politely for the punch and cookies and head for the door.  This is what weak movements do: they search for the quickest path to something that you’re worried about, but can’t possibly ever truly know about (what happens after we die; is my girlfriend really attracted to me), and start tapping it as fast as the B button on an old NES game where you had to do something by tapping the B button fast (which was all of them).

There’s nothing you can achieve that will put you out of the range of these attacks.  Even if you married the planet’s top supermodel, she is probably clandestinely cheating on you with guys who act like PUAs say to act, or at the very least, she really really wants to and thinks about it all the time.  The only way to prevent this is to act the way PUAs say to act.  Hey, you can’t ever know, so what do you have to lose?  (“Rascal’s wager,” if you will.) 

In this wise, pickup seeks to instill paranoia even as it claims to teach confidence—much like how a religion purports to teach you to be uplifted by God’s love, when it is actually teaching you to fear God’s punishment.

Perhaps the most troubling similarity between “faith” as promoted in religion and “confidence” as promoted in pickup is that, logically and grammatically speaking, neither term should even make sense as an absolute.  You don’t have “faith,” period—you have faith in some specific thing, and are skeptical about others.  Having faith period would just mean that you believe everything, which isn’t even cognitively possible.  Similarly, having “confidence” period doesn’t make any sense, because (in a sane person) confidence is situation-specific.  If I were about to give a lecture on Hamlet, I would be supremely confident; if I were getting up to bat in softball, I would be somewhat confident; and if I were compelled to perform open-heart surgery with my zero years of medical training, I would be pants-shittingly unconfident.  

You’re supposed to understand that you are good at things you’re good at and bad at things you’re bad at.  If you doubt yourself about things you’re good at, you should probably have more confidence—but if you simply acknowledge the things you’re bad at, that’s just being rational.  A common-sense pickup application of this might be something like “try to do things you’re good at when women are watching.”  But once that devolves into “believe that you’re good at everything all the time, in case a woman is watching,” that way madness lies.  (Belief that God is watching you every minute to judge you for any trace of sin = belief that women are watching you every minute to judge you for any sign of insecurity; simultaneously a form of paranoia and delusional self-importance.)

Though PUAs claim to dominate women, emotionally speaking they put women in the place of God.  “Faith” is the magical emotional quality you need to possess in order for God to reward you, and “confidence” is the magical emotional quality you need to possess in order for women to sleep with you.  But absent a specific context or object, “faith” and “confidence” are both emotional chimeras.  Nobody believes in anything all the time, including himself.

Like fanatical religion, extremist pickup claims that empirical reality as we rationally observe it is an illusion.  Their revealed “truths” underlie the illusion, of course, but those truths have been corrupted by those who don’t believe them.  And when the guy at the front of the room starts blurring the lines between what is true and what should be true, it’s time to leave without even bothering with the punch and cookies. 

The worst sites are the ones that have more-or-less abandoned sleeping with women as a primary goal, and have devolved into promoting traditional masculinity for the sake of traditional masculinity.  You’ll note that most of these sites don’t say that women are more attracted to men who behave this way—they say that they should be.  (It’s right because it’s “natural,” and it’s natural because it’s right—the same circular argument as in religion.)

These are the pickup guys who are really into the whole idea of a “natural order” with men at the top.  If you’ve ever wondered what would become of Ayn Rand People if they were still dumb enough to like Ayn Rand but not smart enough to read her books, look no further.  It’s true that a lot of these guys talk about Ayn Rand’s books—but whatever else they may be, those books are long, and I have a hard time picturing a guy who calls someone a faggot every ten seconds and spells it a different way each time making it through a thousand-page book. 

You may have started out with an understandable goal—getting better at talking to women—but if you’ve ended up there, then you’ve ended up crazy.  If all you’re doing is testing out whether it’s true that women like talking about astrology, you’re probably fine, but if you’ve ever caught yourself using the phrase “kung-fu penis,” you are either way too into pickup or you have Tourette’s.

Just to clarify, my argument against the angry pickup sites isn’t that I want to protect women from them because they’re misogynist.  On the contrary, I don’t really believe that women need protecting from them at all.  Because the most damning blow against the angry pickup sites is, quite simply, that the advice on those sites can’t possibly work.  I know they’re not getting laid as much as they claim to be, because no-one who gets laid that much is as pissed off as they are.  In order to want to “save” women from them, I would need to believe that the guys who hang out in those forums ever actually left the house and did any of the things they claim to do.  But they don’t.  So I think women need to be protected from them about as much as I think George Clooney needs to be protected from the commenters on Perez Hilton.

Just like I have a hard time believing a man who preaches charity and humility but lives in a giant jewel-encrusted palace, I don’t buy the stories of a bunch of guys who claim to be great with women but spend all their time talking to other dudes on the internet.  I don’t care what you’re talking about—if you are spending all your time talking to other dudes on the internet, you’re a nerd.  Mick Jagger and Lord Byron didn’t fuck all those chicks so they could run off and brag to strangers about it on the web (the least “confident” thing imaginable).  They fucked all those chicks because they just liked to fuck chicks.  They also spent a lot of time actually caring about other things too, which is why we know who they are.  You don’t get a plaque in Westminster Abbey because you spent your life cruising sports bars in a stupid hat. 

So if I’m not writing this to “protect” or get applause from women, who am I writing it for?  Well, me, for a start, because I like writing and I like being right.  But also for guys who—like me—have read up on pickup out of curiosity and come out if it feeling worse than they did before.  Although it’s not the case that learning will always make you feel better, it’s also true that if the deeper you go into a field of supposed knowledge, the worse you feel, then there’s probably something else going on besides learning.  Those extra nagging feelings are the weight of unfalsifiable assertions you’ve been ordered to carry around.  Just like a religion that makes you feel hateful and suspicious of the world that is supposedly God’s creation instead of finding beauty in it is probably the wrong religion, a philosophy on sex that reduces it to a series of commandments about how to prove yourself to strangers is probably the wrong philosophy on sex.   If women demonstrably like you better and you feel fine, then everything’s probably fine.  But if you walk away from every encounter with a woman feeling like crap regardless of how it went, and then running to your computer to ask strangers why, then you should probably work up the confidence to walk outside and start asking some questions of real life.  That’s what scientists do.

And Batman is a scientist.

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